Natural Farming in the Andes

Guayachinuma Farm clings to a mountainside in southern Ecuador.   It rises up 400 meters from river valley to ridgetop.  Like much of the country it was previously deforested and converted to pasture, a recipe for erosion on such steep slopes.  Overtime the peaks grew rockier and the rivers muddier.  That was until 10 years ago when Victor purchased the land, and since then it has regenerated significantly while supporting ecological farming methods.

The first step towards regeneration is also the easiest and the most effective: remove the cause of degeneration, in this case cattle.  Without large herbivores repressing plant growth, dense thickets have proliferated and pioneer trees have reached up to 20 feet.  And without their hooves compressing and eroding topsoil, the black gold has accumulated feet deep with organic matter and moisture.  These days livestock is limited to two pigs, a dozen chickens and Blanquito the horse.

Notice the straight fencelines cut out of nearby mountains which support mostly imported, exotic grasses like panicum (above).  Click to enlarge.  Compare that to the revegetated slopes of Guyachinuma (below).

Aliso (alnus acuminata, pictured below) are the workhorses of nature's reclamation project here in its early stages. They grow quickly—up to a meter (3ft) per year.  They stabilize the soil with their roots, and improve its fertility by fixing nitrogen and mulching with leaves.  They also provide timber for cooking, building and, in the case of Julian and Clemence, sculpting.  See Trees of the Andes  

See list of arboles leguminosos used for reforestation in Colombia.

Food Forests
Avacados, papayas, bananas, lemons, granadillas, chirimoyas, ground cherries, cactus, dragonfruit… Food forests pack every spacial niche with a diversity of food-bearing plants, from root crops to ground covers and shrubs to vines and trees.  They are mostly perennials, meaning no need to re-till or re-sow each year, meaning less labor and environmental disturbance compared to annual crops. 

Omar and Manuel in the new food forest.

During my visit we planted 30 avocado trees in a new section of food forest.  The process included clearing brush, digging holes 3ft wide, mixing in compost with topsoil, and adding fertilizer (see recipe below).   Then, from the previously cleared brush, we added thick heaps of mulch around each seedling to retain moisture, block weed growth, and eventually add humus to soil.

Avacado sapling.
Where broadscale annuals are necessary, like the Andean staples of corn and beans, care is taken to minimize erosion.  Only on flatter ridgetops are cultivated, ideally less than 5% incline, where rainwater and gravity exert less downhill force on the soil.  Forming mounded rows perpendicular to the slope also helps block erosion, as does the later addition of mulch.

Growing multiple crops together is another part of the strategy.  It reduces the area needed for cultivation (i.e. disturbance).  Also, plants assist each other: beans fix nitrogen which fertilizes the corn, and the corn forms trellises for the beans to grow on.  Together they blanket the field, suppressing weed growth and cooling/moisturizing the soil.

3 corn and 2 bean seeds in each hole, two hands apart.

 Learnings both Random and Practical
-Each coconut comes with two free bowls.
-Horseshit can seal open wounds, according to Victor's chin.
-Place a hard avocado in a bonfire for 30 minutes for deliciousness far exceeding that of baked potatoes.
-Flies and mosquitoes are less of a problem where chickens roam. 
-Seeds of the higuerilla plant (ricinuscommunis) excrete an oil when ground, which can coat and protect wood, including sculptures.
-How to make organic fertilizer: mix fermented weeds (¼), urine (¼) and water (½), ferment for 15 days, then pour about 2 liters in each treehole.
-The stalks of sweetcorn can be sucked for sweet juice.  Who knew?
-Stands of eucalyptus and Monterrey pines are common yet artificial scenes on the otherwise deforested mountains of Ecuador.  They are foreign species introduced for timber.

The sculpture of Julian and Clemence, a travelling couple from France.  It represents the earth´s connection to the sun (the bottom and top, respectively) with each branch being a planet.  It´s a work in progress.

1 comment:

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